Living in the Moment, Outdoors, Things I Can

45. Things I Can Catch: Night Light

Four days of rain. Then an afternoon storm, a morning threat, and another downpour. A week of this at least. We lose count. We pack away the idle swimsuits and slog through every errand with an extra umbrella in the passenger seat.

Floorboards buckle up from slab. The door swells, resisting its jamb’s unyielding corset. Tiny ants breach the cinnamon fortress and try to escape into the pages of books, the weave of the carpet, any island in this ever-expanding gulf of damp. On the balcony, the cilantro and parsley bolt then shrivel. The snow peas, drunk and throbbing just days ago, now droop from bleached stems.

Even the bedsheets offer no relief. An invisible film binds leg, thigh, cheek, lashing us against the dark wash of dreams.

Before another futile attempt at sleep, I must go out. I take the dog. The sky is taking a breath so we hop over a thousand small pools and wind our way past the jungle gym and the swingset. We climb through the creeping vine tunnel and slip out beyond the lamplit warren of our neighborhood.

Out there is field, shadow, the traffic plunging below the horizon in a steady aquatic hush. The first lightning bug shines its beacon low across the brambles.

A honeysuckle mist clings to the remains of the equinox, lingering like spider silk long after its source has taken leave.

Thunder miles off growls across the distance, flashing its tail, baring its blunt teeth.

Children, Parenting

Turning Rite

A rattling on metal. Something like gravel on the roof of a train. It echoes down four stories and then back again through the flue reaching above mine and the one above that, all the way out to night. The fire is a mere whisper of its former self, a glow in a carpet of gray. I reach in with the hook end of the poker and creak down the damper. Rain gushes down outside, washing away the remains of dozens of exploded snowballs, our frantic footprints, the tiny snowman with the stick features we built in the first dusting on the basketball court. It will melt away the ice that has already canceled school for tomorrow, carrying it down curbs, into sewers, away to the Chesapeake bay.
 
At dinner tonight, we slurped soup and talked of rituals. Tea ceremonies and such. “What’s a ritual?” Bug asked. Our guest and I tried our best to puzzle out a definition. Like a habit that you do over and over, but with more meaning. Sort of. And like a tradition, sort of. “Like brushing your teeth every night?” Bug asked. We pulled out the Oxford dictionary. We looked up both “ritual” and “habit.” The former is marked by its regularity and invariability, and it often has a religious and ceremonial quality to it. We tried to come up with our rituals. Are the three books and three songs every night a routine or a ritual? Where do our prayers and passages reside? Do we have a sacred fixation?
 
My boy sleeps now. Out through a reflection of green-pink-everycolor lights, the street below is a river. Ice-tipped peaks and silvered trenches first soften to hills then flatten to black.
 
Our last book at bedtime was a new one from the library: The Man Who Walked Between the Towers. It is the true story of the feat of one Philippe Petit who, in 1974, snuck a cable between the two buildings of the World Trade Center as they were still under construction. He walked it, danced it, and even lay upon it as the sun rose over New York City. The book tipped me vertiginously too high and too far behind all at once. Dizzy, I had to catch my breath. Those towers are gone and Bug wanted to know why.
 
This question was going to come. Even with this certainty, I knew I would never be prepared. Shutting the book and setting it aside, I scooted down close to him. “There were some people who wanted to hurt America,” I explained. “They hijacked airplanes and flew them into the buildings. The buildings fell down. People died.”
 
True to his engineering mind, he actually wanted the how, not the why. I filled in the gaps easily. Too easily. It is all as fresh as if I am watching it now on that giant screen, the same silence choking us — bound as I am to the anonymous, forever Us of that moment — in a university lounge just a few miles from the Pentagon. Bug asked one straightforward question after another. “Did they fly into one building then out and into the other?”
 
“No, baby, there were two different planes. And a couple of others.” I kept it simple. In the spots where he plunged the shovel of his curiosity, I elaborated. We meandered around that day, finally making our way to the moment the passengers on board the last plane stopped the bad guys by crashing into a field. After Bug found where to place his period at the end of the story, he leaned his shovel against a tree, slid down into the bed and asked me to sing.
 
It is legend to him. Ancient history. No frisson shivers through a spectator with quite the intensity it does for a player. These are lines on maps and pages in books. When you are here and now instead of there and then, you trace them with your finger. You maybe imagine visiting. Normandy. Vietnam. Manassas. In other places, too, shadows of what was human made and human razed streak the land. The ones who remember delineate the shade. Those who don the mantle of memory after the last survivors are gone then call those phantoms back again and again until ghosts knit to earth like a skin under the now. Library of Alexandria. Berlin Wall. Twin Towers.
 
It should come as no surprise that Bug is not frightened by the story I tell. It is no different from any other history lesson. People work. Build things. Invent and discover. Go to war. Lead and follow. Make art and families and cities and revolution. Hurt each other. He’s learned already that villains are real. That heroes help. That people can come together to change what is into what could be.
 
That danger lurks and courage grows.
 
My boy’s classroom doors have little black accordions of paper clipped up high in the windows. He tells me these are for when the bad guys come in. While the kids hide, a teacher can unclip the little curtains to block anyone from seeing in. Bug told me this on the way to the car and then asked if I’d brought a snack.
 
My son sleeps. Rain rattles against the damper then dulls to a hum before finally falling silent.
 
He asked for extra songs tonight. Tiny lights glinted from tree branches in the living room. A velveteen Santa sat on a side table with a key silent in its back, having earlier tinkled down its wordless version of what we’ve all learned to know without even trying. I curled into my boy and called from memory the first few verses of the old standbys. Silent night, holy night. . . My voice slowed and and thinned as his eyes drooped. Christ is born in Bethlehem. . . Planted in the furrows of my brain, these hymns. As Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ on Christmas day in the morn. . . I settle my child to sleep with the lyrical story of a God we do not worship in an ancient land that is not ours. Born is the king of Israel. . .
 
The evergreen outside the window sheds its silver husk. Boughs that protected a soft patch of snow from the freezing rain earlier now dip and shudder in the downpour. Inside, an ember pops. The scaled lip of the last log glows for one fulgent moment before turning to ash.
 

Children, Outdoors

Ancestry (abridged)

He cranks the handle of the umbrella. It creaks open like dragon wings after a long winter. The skies have been emptying themselves over this place for days. Underfoot, the ground is no longer differentiated. Soil? Water? It all pools together and pushes up around the feet. Slog and slop. The green is shameless now, cascading wanton curtains of thrilled leaf. Bug neither cares about the soggy seat cushions nor acknowledges that lasagna isn’t exactly patio-dining fare.
 
The rain has paused. We will be eating outside.
 
The four of us scoot in around the green iron circle cluttered with linen napkins, big porcelain plates, and parmesan cheese. The pansies behind Bug pop in violet butter from the boxes. He devours the slipping, fat noodles and wipes up the remaining sauce with garlic toast. We talk easy and only half about anything. My mother is wearing the necklace my father sprang on her at the tag end of Christmas day last year. It is a silver-and-stone replica of the solar system.
 
“Which one is Pluto?” Bug asks.
 
“It’s the littlest one, isn’t it?” She lifts the chain and examines. Bug reaches out and touches the polished tigers-eye sphere suspended in a silver ring.
 
“Is that Saturn?”
 
We go through the planets one by one. He does not see the sun. “Grandma’s head is the sun,” I say. She strikes and pose and we all chuckle.
 
“I bet the hippies are still out there in the Arizona desert selling those things,” my father says. “You know, they make every single piece by hand.”
 
“What’s a hippie?” Bug asks.
 
Silence. We all consider.
 
“An ancient civilization,” I finally say. My folks both laugh.
 
“Hippies were a strange tribe of people who broke with tradition long ago,” I go on. “They created their own rituals and ways of worshipping the things they held sacred.”
 
“Yeah,” my dad snorts. “Unlike every other civilization in the world?”
 
“They made wild, new music and wore beautiful costumes.” I explain. “Some of their songs and stories are still with us today.” I take a swig of my ice water and reach the professorial conclusion. “In fact, you could say it was a renaissance.”
 
My mother laughs. “Yeah, a renaissance of hair.” She smiles at Bug. “Everyone grew their hair long then.”
 
“My hair is long,” Bug says.
 
“Yeah. It wouldn’t be if not for the revolutionary ways of the Hippie,” I say.
 
Bug ponders this. Behind him, the tiny duckpins of the fuschia plant are popping open and splaying their purple viscera. “What kind of hair would I have?”
 
“Short,” say my folks together.
 
“Army short,” says my dad.
 
“And you wouldn’t be able to wear jeans to school,” explains my mom.
 
“You have much to thank the Hippie for,” I tell him.
 
“Why?” Bug reaches for more bread but I block him with a carrot. He takes it and gives it a crunch around his loose tooth.
 
“Because before that, people had ideas about doing things only one way,” I say.
 
“Everyone had to follow orders,” my mother explains. She gestures towards the rest of the lasagna and my dad reaches for it. She slops out extra helpings on the smeared plates. The dog snuffles near and I give her a firm point down the steps.
 
“Hippies were big kids like your aunt and uncles,” I explain. I wave off the offer of another helping. The evening is just too light for more. “Young people. Tired of being told how to be. They decided they were going to do things their own crazy, artsy, colorful way. And so they did, even if it got them in trouble.”
 
“Okay,” says Bug. He tucks into the melty cheese. His shirt is spattered. The capacity of his stomach stuns me, as does the fact that he is just so very tall.
 
“You should have seen your granddaddy’s hair,” my mother says with a faraway look in the direction of her husband.
 
He grunts. “Yeah. It was really something. Down to there, hair.”
 
“Where it stops by itself,” she says.
 
It goes quiet except for the sip of wine, the slurp of sauce. A borer bee dips low and Bug ducks away. I remind him that bees prefer nectar over tomato sauce and that she’ll be off to find something sweeter. She should have no trouble lighting upon an ample source in this fecund pocket of earth.
 

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Happy 100 Days: 63

A hawk lifts off from a branch when we pass under. It is the same one we saw in the spring from the balcony. It was a distant visitor then, its tail a crimson haze. We named it Cesar.
 
The rain pelts our coats. Looking up to find the place where the bird has landed sends water snaking down our jaws to pool in the necks of our hoods. The hawk’s tiny eyes look down, taking the measure of us (two gangling primates and one lop-eared wolf). We cannot pose much threat, our boots slipping on the path’s wet skin of leaves. Still, the raptor lifts its wings and rises again, beating against the fierce wind to find the elevation where it can see but not be seen.
 
Here, under the sagging autumn canopy, we are silent. The power to name is no longer ours.
 
Blocked by debris, the creek has cut a new channel. White water surges alongside the roots of the oaks. It makes its escape downstream, forming an island. The emerald heads of mallards reflect the last of the light. Their white necks trace busy figures against the roiling pond. The small flock bobs in dizzying circles, rivulets of wet streaming along their feathers and back to the source.
 
Around the bend, the blue heron stands knee-deep in churning white right at the funnel where the waterfall begins. He glances our way. Not until the pooch veers towards the creek do the wings shudder to life. Gunmetal feathers unfurl, grab air, and haul the body up. The heron barely bothers to tuck its spindled legs under its belly. It skims the surface, tarnished bronze feet almost flicking into the water. It alights in a quieter eddy upstream on the opposite bank. It turns its head away from us, the cutlass of its beak rending the wind.
 

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Happy 100 Days: 86

Rain and rain. A pyramid of monster cookies greets me when I return from the gray world beyond. Inside this cocoon, he has put beans to simmer in the crock pot and started baking the sourdough loaf. This one has a drizzle of honey to sweeten it.
 
Yesterday, as we meandered past storefronts and chatted with artists displaying their shards of glass and wooden eggs, he pointed out the Plow and Hearth. “What does that word mean? What is hearth?”
 
I tried to come up with the right definition, naming the specific thing (the inside part of a fireplace, no?) but also attempting to draw the edges of the concept with my meager words. I call up a picture of a Mary Azarian wood cut, that curl of smoke, the pot bubbling over the flame, an open chair near the table. A loaf, warm, waiting on the board. A jar of honey. A box of salt.
 
We walk on, and then it is the next thing. The child, the errands, the warming up for the next sprint.
 
Everything needs doing. Everything always does, no matter how much is already done. After stuffing the gift bags for Bug’s party with pencils and granola bars, I stop and curl up on the couch with the crossword from the Sunday Post. Giovanni is kind and lets me mute the football game to put on classical 90.1. A swell of strings pushes wide the walls.
 
The rain falls against the turning leaves, yellow poplars finally claiming their name. I mumble through the clues, calling out, “Four letters! Spy plane or rock band! Ends in X or O. We should know this!”
 
“I don’t know. ELO? NWA?” He slices asparagus and pepper, sautes garlic. In the oven, the loaf is rising, and he has started on the sauce for pasta. Much to my surprise, I complete the entire crossword. It may be the first time I have ever done so in one sitting. I do not know what time I arrived today. I do not know what time it is now. The couch no longer faces a clock. I forget to miss it.
 
It has gotten dark, and he has grated the parmesan. I hop up and put water glasses on the table, set silverware on the cloth napkins I gave him back in the winter. Candles, yes, and bits of romanesco, soft cones nestled among the shells. We eat and it is my turn to ask the questions about his tucked-away stories.
 
What is hearth?
 
Inside that word, sanctuary and warmth, yes? A place of returning.
 
I only a manage a rough sketch, but it suffices for now.